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Putting the 'Fun' Back in Parenting

Studies tell us parenting is a drag. Metro Parent talked to Jennifer Senior, author of the new book 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,' about why and how to change that.

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Before having children, we may romanticize what it means to be a parent, picturing a montage of huge hugs, freshly baked cookies, games of catch and twirling across a crisp-cut lawn.

Once baby is born, reality hits.

While precious moments do exist, most of the time parenting is made up of mundane tasks, duty, sacrifice and lots and lots of work.

The sheer weight of responsibility and the drastic ways having children changes our lives is something we can't really prepare for, and study after study has shown that parents are less happy than people without children, according to many measurable indicators.

Newborns and toddlers bring sleeplessness, loss of autonomy and identity, loneliness and depression. With adolescence comes arguing, worry and regret. At every stage, parents face endless chores, demands and sometimes – let's face it – sheer, unrelenting boredom.

Yet the questions researchers ask to get to the heart of "happiness" don't necessarily capture the deeper, more nuanced experiences of raising kids. Several studies show people with children are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives in the end. Emotions like meaning, purpose, awe, pride, warmth and unconditional love are harder to measure.

In her new book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood – which has made waves and hit the New York Times Best Sellers list – author Jennifer Senior explores how children affect their parents. Through extensive research and interviews, she concludes that while they may render our days more difficult, they also make our lives more rewarding and fulfilling in the end.

Parenting may never be easy, but here, Senior shares some tips on making it more fun.

Change your definition

What is fun, anyway? Senior says changing our expectations of what raising children should be is a great place to start reclaiming the joy of parenting. "The 20th century ushered in this idea that we are entitled to fun and happiness and that if we don't have it, something is the matter," says Senior, a contributing editor at New York Magazine. "Already the expectation is very stressful."

Find your flow

Studies have shown we are happiest when we are "in the zone," engrossed in tasks we are good at. Flow is best achieved when we are uninterrupted, challenging the limits of our mastery, doing tasks that are clearly defined with rules and deadlines.

This is almost exactly the opposite of what it takes to be engaged with a young child. "They are living in the now and you are not," Senior says.

Yet as children get older, it becomes easier to make plans and set up situations where every family member can indulge in something they enjoy. Create rituals, such as game nights or "crafternoons," or organize outings in which each family member can find some fun. "Have something to do that you get lost in," Senior suggests.

Stop multitasking

It's difficult to work from home, and since research shows that the average parent is interrupted every three minutes by their children, it seems pointless to try. Senior says one key to happiness at home is to draw a clear line between work and play.

"The nature of work has changed so that we are now working all the time. There are no boundaries between our living room and our office, so it's much harder to luxuriate in your children," Senior says. "You are perversely perceiving your children as disruptive to checking your email instead of your email as disruptive to your time with your children."

Establish a time to log off and focus on your family. "Setting up the expectation you are going to be answering emails all evening makes parenting less fun because your attention is fractured," Senior says.

Loosen up

We're so used to buttoning up and conforming to social norms, Senior says, but as every parent knows, little children have no such behavioral censors. Why not join them? Being a parent gives you the perfect excuse to lighten up. Sing silly songs. Make up crazy voices. Dance around. Tell jokes. Poke and tickle.

"The great thing about little kids is they really don't judge and they don't bear grudges," Senior says. "They're an uncorked streaming crazy id, and you're allowed to be that too. How fun is that?"

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